Posted by: facetothewind | October 5, 2015

Crazy Haze


If you’ve read my blog before, you’ve seen what the view from my apartment can be. Now look at it (above). This heinous air pollution comes to us courtesy Indonesia where they are practicing slash and burn agriculture and clearing forests for palm oil plantations. On the ground, this is what it looks like…


This is what it looks like from outer space. Kuala Lumpur is somewhere under that upper layer of smoke as we are pretty close to the source of the smoke.


And this is what it does to the air quality…


So we’ve taken to wearing masks and staying indoors mostly with the windows closed. In my opinion, Malaysia is currently uninhabitable. The locals are amazingly tolerant and rugged to put up with this year after year. I now have an upper respiratory infection just from breathing the little outside air that I do. In the evening when my cough starts, Chuan hits my back and out pops some big wad of green goo. It’s truly disgusting.


I asked my friend Cynthia the other day, “Would you rather be gunned down in fresh air in America or have your purse snatched in the smog of Malaysia?” Her answer: “Be gunned down in fresh air…just saying.” I had to laugh at the lunacy of this mad, mad, mad, mad world we’ve created.

Still I don’t miss the opportunity to smell a frangipani. Chuan and I are going to Bali in a few weeks for a little lush life. Can’t wait!


Living in Malaysia is the definition of true love…


Only 115 more days of this.

Posted by: facetothewind | September 26, 2015

25,000 Miles and I’m Home


The last stop in my circumnavigation of this once great planet is Amsterdam. John and I took the train from Bruges through Antwerp and then on up into the Netherlands. Did you know that Netherlands means “lowlands?” It’s a muddy place that would be underwater were they not stemming the tide with dikes and pumps. The mushiness of the soil is evidenced by the leaning buildings which over the centuries have had their ups and downs.


Nothing in Amsterdam is plumb, square, or level. Sofas probably have seat belts.

You might think you’re stoned, which in Amsterdam is a very easy possibility, but no, the buildings are literally melting into the mud. I can’t imagine having a rolling desk chair in one of those 17th century beauties. Anyway, John had his maps at the ready and we hit the streets to discover this town we’d both been to many years ago.

Cafes, Canals, Cheese, Canabis, Cycling, Crowds

Arizona has its 5 C’s: copper, climate, citrus, cattle, cotton. But Amsterdam has its own set of C-perlatives coined by me (and it sure doesn’t include “Climate” as it rained almost every day) but you have to add a B in there for Beer! So here’s my Amsterdam superlatives in photos:


We found this extraordinary cafe that had amazing homemade pastries — all wonderfully luscious and moist. It seemed to be some sort of women’s collective as it was entirely staffed by women. We especially loved the rhubarb pie. It’s called Die Laatste Kruimel — The Last Crumb — but I can’t say where it is for sure. One clue: it is by a canal.


The canals give the city a wonderful romantic quality with reflections of 500 year old buildings shimmering in the water while electric tour boats silently glide by, passengers sipping champagne.


In a way, with all its waterways, museums, and historic architecture, Amsterdam is a combination of Paris and Venice rolled into one big fat joint. And nearly as crowded…


But what Amsterdam DOESN’T have is car traffic. It’s all bicycle traffic.


It is estimated that there are more bicycles than people. And so the air is clean and the streets are remarkably quiet except for the grinding street trams and the sound of bicycle bells. They have their own half of the sidewalk and don’t you dare step into it or face a chorus of angry bells (see the video at the end of this posting).

Now the cheese. Here’s my lunch in Edam, a small town 45 minutes from Amsterdam, known for its cheese by the same name. This heavenly lunch of all things not found in Asia cost me 3.75 euros ($4.20 — an auspicious number in Amsterdam!). The guy behind the counter made a sample of cheese slices for me, the bread was fresh out of the oven, and the olive medley he threw in for free. The beer was a “tripel” which meant it had a high alcohol content of 8.4%. So I wandered around in a daze that afternoon and fell asleep on the bus back to Amsterdam. I had a sore neck upon arrival but it was worth it.

beer and cheese

The Canabis. Yeah you’ve all heard about it. The “coffeeshops” serve a variety of marijuana if you ask for it. If only I were in my 20s again, I might have enjoyed it. But I’m more of the museum-going, beer-swilling, pastry pusher at this point in my life.


But I do appreciate a town liberal enough to allow such things even if I’ve personally outgrown them. And hey, who knew Amsterdam was a college town…


Where else but Amsterdam (and perhaps Portland, OR) are you going to find Cheech & Chong’s Coffeshop? If you’re too young or sophisticated to know who C&C are, do look them up.


And you gotta love a city that allows prostitution, and in fact taxes and regulates it. (I guess, so does Nevada, USA.) Here in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, it seems to draw the same titillated and sleazy crowds Las Vegas does. It’s not really my scene either, but John and I walked through it and resisted the temptation to go into the Museum of Prostitution. FYI – there’s a museum for everything in Amsterdam, from ceramic cows to tuilps to day glo art to marijuana.


Here’s a window in the famous Red Light District. No pix from my camera of the girls, sorry, I respect their privacy. And for the record I did not see any boys for sale. For that you’ll have to go to Bangkok or online…oh oops, not anymore since was busted. *Interesting side note: I spent my 43rd birthday hanging out with the CEO of in Bangkok…not quite realizing who he was at the time. He did buy my birthday dinner. Thanks, “Jamon.” What can I say, America is still a prudish nation poisoned by its pilgrim beginnings.

Speaking of museums, Amsterdam has the most famous Rembrandt painting The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum, truly a sight to behold with the drama of its size and use of light. Like the Mona Lisa in Paris, It draws the big crowds, sigh. I was thrilled, though, to see groups of Dutch school kids there. Interestingly, there are information placards circulating around the painting. One of the questions people ask the most is, “How much is The Night Watch worth?” What a dumb question, huh? The museum’s response is the essence of Dutch practicality: “We have no idea, it’s not for sale, anyway.”


Amsterdam is also home of the fabulous Van Gogh Museum. If you can brave the lines and crowds, you are treated to a progressive, multi-floor trip through the life of the tortured (yet disciplined) artist via his work, his friends’ works, and his letters. Here’s the painting I liked the most: a portrait of his beloved brother Theo, but it was formerly believed to be one of his many self-portraits.


A couple other extraordinary things about Amsterdam…much of its wealth has its roots quite literally in flowers. Tulip bulbs were once worth more than houses and were traded like stocks in the market. And to this day, the Netherlands remains a major global flower market. This manifests in Amsterdam with the wonderful fresh-cut floral displays seen in so many restaurants and shops…


In Amsterdam, you don’t have to pinch the flowers, they’re real and so are the candles. None of the flickering LED variety here.


One last thing. The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. No kidding — at 5’10” I came up to about shoulder height of most men there.


This woman, who was a bit shorter than me, is seen out walking her pet gorilla, err, a normal-sized Dutch man. The average height of a Dutch man is 6’4″. Now how did that happen? I’d say it’s the cheese.

Overall, I’d say Amsterdam is a pretty groovy city with a lot of European history and charm that has yet to be invaded by mainland Chinese tour groups unloading busloads of selfie-makers. I think there’s a stigma about drugs and prostitution that are off-putting to the mainstream mainlanders and maybe the more adventurous mainlanders would come on their own and be totally welcome. There are too many tourists as is, evidenced by the masses at Dam Square and the line around the block at the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum. Most of them it seems are from Italy, Spain, France, and England. I heard a few American accents (yes, dear Americans, you do have an accent that is quite discernible), but mostly what I heard was Spanish and Italian.

Here’s the video of the trip…

And here’s the remainder of my photos in a photo collage. You can enjoy some more floral displays, a pictorial visit to the Hortus Botanicus, and a small collection of sagging buildings. Click on the first one and use your arrow to advance through…

Finally, this is what I returned to in Malaysia. Sadly, the place is a hot mess…

Look at the view from my window. The smog or as they call it, the

Look at the view from my window. The smoke or as they call it, the “haze,” comes to us courtesy Indonesia illegally burning its forests.

The Malaysian currency is collapsing. When I first moved here, the Ringgit was 1 USD = 3.25 Ringgit. Now look at it. It's good for me, but bad news for Malaysians.

The Malaysian currency is collapsing. When I first moved here, the Ringgit was 1 USD = 3.25 Ringgit. Now look at it. It’s good for me, but bad news for Malaysians.


My first day back. Wehoo. ISIS rolls out the welcome mat. But they won’t bother me, I’m Canadian, remember.


The corruption scandal reaching new lows. The PM is accused of embezzling nearly 700 million USD from a public fund, which is contributing to the lack of investor confidence in the country and the sagging currency.

But the highlight of the return would be my sweet boyfriend who waited patiently for me to come home, tracking the ship across the ocean every day. Nothing like a month apart to rekindle passion!


It is good to be home. But home is where the heart is and fortunately for me, the heart is a moveable feast.

Posted by: facetothewind | September 15, 2015

The European Invasion


There’s definitely an anti-immigrant sentiment brewing here in Europe. I saw 3 of these stickers in Belgium. Although I don’t have much reason to appreciate Islam for its extreme views on women and gays, I tore the signs off and threw them in the trash. To me this is the same as “Kein Jude” in Nazi Germany. This kind of harsh swipe is not necessary. But, Europe has some major challenges ahead as its hard-won progressive values are clashing with Islam.

After the QM2 crossing it was on to London to meet up with John Johnson and then onward to “the Continent.” Bruges, Belgium — which is all about chocolate, beer, and mussels — was the first stop. So I indulged in all of them…

DSC06629 DSC06634 DSC06691

But Bruges also feels like a place that has been discovered by the Chinese tour groups, something one has to take into account before considering visiting a place now. Bruges has for decades been swamped with tourists, just like Paris, Venice, Barcelona, or any of the major tourist attractions of Europe. Before the Chinese arrived they were ridiculously crowded. Now adding the millions of Chinese who travel in large groups, these places are unbearably crowded.

I can’t blame them for wanting to see these places — they didn’t become tourist attractions for being boring places. They are extraordinary and we all should see them. But the “we all” has gotten to be too many. People of Barcelona have already spoken and said the benefits of tourism are not worth the hassle. I personally feel like I’m visiting these places for the last time as the world’s traveling population has now exceeded the numbers that make visiting these historic places pleasant. It’s sad that the world has reached a critical point in its population such that quiet enjoyment of a place is getting harder to find. And I know we’ve not seen anything yet. With this mass exodus from Syria, it seems that Europe is coming unglued. I want to hunker down somewhere far away.


Bruges is one of those places that was once quiet and breathtakingly beautiful. I was here 31 years ago. It was sleepy in October, 1984. At age 19, I recall lonely walks up the cobblestone streets in search of mussels and French onion soup with the sound of horses clippity clopping and bells ringing from the tower. The smell of mussels and soup still fill the winding streets, but so do the tourists and the clippity clop of thousands of feet and the herding of groups to their idling buses. The tower now plays a cheesy version of Beethoven’s 9th over and over and everywhere is the site of people doing selfies with selfie sticks with the fingers in the air doing the V (for what?) or to pinch the little statues in the background. Somehow it spoils the place. And the locals told me there is never a low season for them. It’s packed all year long. Mark my words: there will come a time when you will have to make a reservation and buy a ticket to visit a place much as you do Disneyworld…2 for Venice, please.


John and I had a day when there seemed to be no cruise ships or major tour buses plying the town. The next day it all hit. We had to shimmy alongside thousands of people exiting a cloister. I left out the annoyingly crowded parts in my photos — I want to remember Bruges as a sleepy medieval town before cell phones and selfie sticks.

Here’s the rough cut video of the trip arriving by ship in Southampton, England and then on to Oxford, London and then the Eurostar to Bruges, Belgium…

And here’s a photo collage of Bruges and London mixed in together…

Next stop: Amsterdam

Posted by: facetothewind | September 11, 2015

Slow travel: crossing the Atlantic in 7 days


Jean and I on the day of embarkation from New York to England.

Here’s a little photo collage of the trip.

It was a grand affair to cross the Atlantic in the world’s only ocean liner. I made some lovely new friendships, enjoyed lots of time with an old friend in between trivia games, heard some great music and ate some amazing food. I even danced with a man on the ballroom floor! (Thanks for the dance lessons, Jean!) But the crossing was not perfection. The ship hit some rough seas half way out and we were nauseous for a couple days even with the stabilizer fins deployed. Then we were sleepy from dramamine. There were some dud meals and the engine vibrations were working my nerves at dinner. But overall it was pretty extraordinary. Crosby, Stills and Nash were aboard for a few concerts. They were great! Wonderful to see these truly historic rock and roll gems (antiquities) on stage a few feet away. Their songs are anthems.

Watch the video but sorry, nothing of CSN — it was strictly forbidden. Stories to come when I’m back. The first half of this video is just life on board the Queen Mary 2 and the 2nd half is just a meditation on watching the ocean…skip it if you’re bored…

Next stop: London and then Belgium

Posted by: facetothewind | September 4, 2015

When is the New World the Old World?


Answer: When you live in Kuala Lumpur where they tore down all the old.


America now seems like the old world to me. And so here I am in the United States, doing old worldly things like staying in Brooklyn in an old brownstone from the late 1800’s, going on a sail in New York harbor, going to a museum of medieval art, touring a gothic cathedral and then taking an ocean liner to England.

May it not end like this…


Stained glass window in St. John the Divine in New York with a tribute to the Titanic. Hey, what about the Empress of Ireland and the Andrea Doria?

Watch the video that starts in San Francisco and then on to New York…

And here’s a mosaic of stills. Click on one and then advance with your L or R arrows…

Next stop: England on the QM2. Click here to see where we are. 

Posted by: facetothewind | August 25, 2015

Verticalville: Hong Kong

It’s hard to say goodbye for a month. Harder even for the person left behind. Holding on to Chuan’s hand as he’s driving me to the airport, not wanting to let go. But distance is always good for a relationship to give it perspective and meaning.


Then on the airport train to KLIA, a guy had his feet all over the furniture in spite of the signs everywhere not to do so. It’s just so Malaysian…


Onward to more civilized places. The first stop on my round the world trip is in Hong Kong where it seems like some sort of fantastical dream of living in Verticalville.

Wooloomooloo Hong Kong

Hong Kongers are quite respectful and decent citizens. It’s a pedestrian friendly city and people don’t push onto the subway like misbehaved children as they do in Malaysia. Here they line up and wait. On the escalators, the standers go to the right and the walkers on the left. Here, a red light mean stop and a sidewalk is not for parking your motorcycle. Hong Kong feels like a grown up place that has evolved over a long time and the product of good upbringing, its people sophisticated, respectful, and elegant. Kuala Lumpur seems really rough around the edges, immature, unrefined —the product of poor upbringing. Interestingly, when I arrived in HK, I couldn’t make sense of Sebby’s directions and so I got hopelessly lost. Two very kind American expats spotted me in my confused state in a crowd and offered to help me. They pointed me in the right direction and gave me 60 HK dollars (!) to catch a cab as I had not yet found an ATM. I was astounded by this gesture which felt like a big hug from my home country. Thank you nameless citizens for helping me out. I wish I had gotten their names.


I came to see Sebastian and his boyfriend, Simon, who was very welcoming and warm.


But I also came to eat PIZZA! And here I am pigging out on Paesano’s Pizza…

Paesano pizza hong kong

Victoria Peak Hong Kong

Victoria Peak. (Click to enlarge panorama.)

Saw a very cool retro (but new) car called the Nissan Figaro. It was love at first sight!

Saw a very cool retro (but new) car called the Nissan Figaro. It was love at first sight!

Some photos from around town…

Hong Kong bamboo scaffolding

Hong Kong

Hong Kong skyline 2

Hong Kong skyline


You can watch the rough cut video of the trip…

Next stop: San Francisco.

Posted by: facetothewind | August 20, 2015

Mid Summer Miscellany

I’m off on a month long trip around the world. Back at the end of September. My trip will take me first to Hong Kong to see Sebastian, then San Francisco to collect Jean. Then we set off to New York to see my friend Anna and sail on the Queen Mary 2 to England. Then a quick visit to London and then off to Brussels, Bruges, and Amsterdam. I’ll be unavailable while on the ship from September 4-11.

For now, here’s a short video of the my midsummer in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca. The video starts with the bus driver to Malacca texting while driving. I was astonished at the risk he took with all of our lives and was so incensed that I reported him to the federal agents here and they’ve opened a case against the company.  I found out that texting while driving a bus is a very common occurrence here in Malaysia. So unbelievably uncivilized. Anyway, then see the building being painted and my 25 floor daily stair workout. Then on to Malacca, Chuan’s playing piano in various places, a monsoon, some flooding and then more fireworks…

Next stop Hong Kong.

Posted by: facetothewind | August 7, 2015

Celebrating One Year Together


I’m not a big believer in superstition — things like not walking under ladders, touching wood and such — they have no meaning for me. But when Chuan and I first met, we were at a temple in Penang and he said we should put a little wish ribbon up on the pole and that we would get what we asked for. No harm done, so we put one up…


A year later here we are indeed coupled and paired. Voila! If only it were as easy as tying a ribbon on a pole or asking St. Mildred (my friend Jean’s magical granter of parking spaces and more). The behind the scenes story is that Chuan insisted on loving me as he does, to this day. I am a doubter by nature but he isn’t. He knew right away that I was his man and he made it happen. Within a few days of meeting, he was calling me Hubby and treating me as if he we would be together the rest of our lives…and I let him. I may be stupid in some regards but I’m smart enough to know that at my age, youthful enthusiasm trumps cynicism and trust is more important than doubt. Otherwise it’s a long slow ride to a miserable old age of isolation.

Chuan is as enthusiastic today as he was a year ago, an extraordinary combination of brilliance, simplicity, goofiness, eagerness, passion, and flexibility. He has consistently been by my side in every difficult moment always ready with a tissue, a helping hand, a solution, and a sensible Chinese home remedy. Chuan’s good manners and elegance, his generosity and dedication to caring for the people around him are inspiring for those of us, ahem, who think more of ourselves first. Chuan has made living in this immensely challenging place feel as much a home as possible…where at least my heart has a place to belong.

After a year of his consistent and persistent affection, my heart has softened such that I can now believe once again in the transformative power of love — something I had lost faith in in the post-Sebastian years.

So get out the crackers cuz here come da cheese…my anniversary gift to Chuan. (Thanks Dianna Krall and Bryan Adams. I did buy the song! Depending on the country, you may not be able to hear the music.) Enjoy…

It seems as I get older, among all the things that have become more difficult, chief among them is the ability to avoid the deeper meaning of my interactions. Much as I may try, sometimes I simply can’t.


A farewell party for the headmaster who got resettled to Australia. In a few more months, I will be saying goodbye, myself.

Case in Point

Tuesday mornings I teach English to a group of Chin refugees from Myanmar. (Read about Chin refugees in the New York Times.) They are Christian children who fled with their parents over the border to Malaysia to avoid the civil war going on in the Chin State in the south of the country. I’m not clear on exactly why or what their circumstances are. Language, cultural, and political barriers prevent me from getting the full story. But what I do know is that these kids are undocumented immigrants in Malaysia, assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The refugees sit in political limbo for years waiting, hoping to be resettled in Australia or the United States. Malaysia won’t take them but tolerates them here while they await their resettlement. The Malaysian police are known to hassle them and extort money out of them…which is why I am not showing their faces. But I want you to know their story — as much as I know it in the near-year since I started teaching them.


The unmarked entrance to the school — unmarked because the students face harassment from the police seeking bribes. They have been known to stop the children on the street and demand money from them and follow them home until they get it from their neighbors and family.


The school’s washroom.

I won’t lie to you and tell you teaching them is the highlight of my week and how much I look forward to being there at the broken down, stinky classroom with restrooms that would curl your hair in horror. I’m untrained as an English teacher and I’m pretty short on tolerance for screaming kids and cockroach infested, grimy classrooms such as this. I’m not going to get a best-selling book out of the deal and I won’t be considered a folk hero among humanitarians for my one class a week volunteer gig. But I will say that teaching these kids is the most rewarding thing I do all week.


Someone has finally fixed the banister. Yay!

Each week I walk up the dingy staircase to the noisy classroom teeming with little kids — some of whom are now teenagers but nonetheless are so small I could pick up and throw a teenage boy across a room should I ever need to. Not that I need to. They are mostly well-behaved kids with great respect for their teachers and elders.

When I enter the room, the students all stand up and yell in unison, “Good morning tee-shuh!” Like a judge I ask them to be seated and I begin the lesson. Usually I start with my Word of the Day lesson. I introduce to them a new word and concept, often some sort of moral lesson that I sneak in under the guise of English lessons. Last week was ‘hygiene’ where I taught them the basics of washing hands and keeping their homes and bodies clean to prevent disease. Being a recent typhoid survivor I felt the gravitas of this lesson. The week before that was ‘progress’ and I asked them to write about where they are making progress and where they wish to make more. Before that it was ‘respect.’ Today’s word of the day was to be two words: ‘metaphor’ and ‘simile.’

But when I walked into the class this morning, no one stood up to greet me. My entrance went unnoticed. I was surprised and curious about the lack of good cheer which normally brightens the dismal setting. Two of the boys who are best friends and normally sit next to each other with their legs and arms thrown over each other in boyish affection, today sat a row apart ignoring each other. One had his head down on the desk, the other with a blank look on his face. The girls didn’t greet me either. Hmm, what’s going on here, I wondered? I asked the boys if they had had a fight. They shook their heads. I asked the girls if the boys had had a fight. They also shook their heads no. “Then what’s going on, I asked?” No answer. At their core, they are Asian and negative emotions are considered unsightly, unnecessary and counterproductive. At my core, I’m Californian and awkward silences must be examined, negativity delved into to find resolution.

Occasionally when teaching, I’ve found it necessary to ditch my lesson plan scratched in my notebook and ‘go with the flow’ to address what’s needed by the students in the moment. Today was one of those days. So instead of launching into metaphors and similes, I wrote on the board, “WORD OF THE DAY: MOOD/MOODY.” I asked them, “Does anyone know the meaning of the word MOOD? Let’s say it together — it sounds like FOOD…MOOD.” No one repeated the word with me. I was bombing like a bad comedian. I asked the girls with the dictionaries to look up the word and read the definition — they remember a word more if they look it up themselves. Then I wrote some moods on the board for them: Sad, Glad, Mad, Happy, Excited, Angry, Bored. I asked the boys to sit next to each other as they always do and to answer my questions in a few sentences, “What is your mood today and why?” They silently set about writing. I watched the pencils wiggling and the lip-biting as they scrutinized their papers. Then I asked to see what they wrote hoping that I would get some insight into the strange silence. Curiously they weren’t shy about sharing their papers with me.

One of the boys wrote that he was feeling lonely because his girlfriend doesn’t want him anymore. He used the word lovelorn. I couldn’t believe he used that word! Clearly he had done some research into his broken heart so that he could articulate it. He also wrote that his phone died. Jeez, double whammy, kid. No WONDER you’re so bummed. For kids today, phones are arguably more important than friends. They are the conveyance devices of attention and love and some connection to the outside world, especially for these kids who are so cut off by their poverty and undocumented status. So I could empathize with his pain.

While the others were still writing, I sat down next to the lovelorn one and looked him in the eye (which I later learned is confrontational in Chin culture) and said, “You know, feeling lonely and sad is OK, it’s a part of life. And sometimes you will feel pain in life. Just remember that you have your friends here and they will be your friends even without your phone and girlfriend.” He braced himself with his arms around his chest and writhed a bit. I am guessing about 35% of what I said made it through the language barrier. Still, if he heard the words ‘sad is OK’ and ‘friend,’ he got the message.

This student is the oldest in the class and his broken heart and phone had a sort of emotional domino effect. His retreat to the back of the room by himself cut him off from his best friend and cuddle buddy who seemed so forlorn without him. And the girls — well, like most of the time, they defer to the boys. Their papers didn’t reveal anything as they said they were happy and glad, the default mood from Asian children…at least on the surface.

At midpoint in the session I went around the class and asked for them to tell me in one word what their mood was. I got the usual happies and glads. But when I got to the lovelorn puppy, his mood was happy on the outside, sad on the inside. Hey! Progress…last week’s word. Somehow just for him to pencil out his pain seemed to help him. And relocating him back to his buddy re-engaged him. Shortly after this I wrote on the corner of the board my travel schedule to inform the kids in advance of my upcoming month-long trip to America and Europe. One of the girls yelled, “No teachuh!” showing a shocked and disappointed face. I think she was expressing some sadness that I would be gone. For me this comes as a heartwarming surprise. I never really thought that they could possibly enjoy my class or me as a teacher.

Wish Lists


My name is Dim. I’m 10 years old. I want to play violin and I need a violin but I don’t have one. I need to buy. I don’t have money. When I grow up I can buy a violin but now I’m young but I want to learn now. I need violin lessons but I can’t afford them. Some people have a violin. I can’t learn without one hear. I’m really really like a violin. (sic)

One week in class I had them write up wish lists — something that they would really like to have in their lives. They got out their papers and wrote away and I photographed some of their requests when they finished. Here are some of them…


Hello. My name is Tammy. I want to learn to dance and I need study and learn dance lesson. I don’t know how to dance but I want to learn. Sometime my lovely sister teach me how to dance but she doesn’t teach base. I would like to learn base and I need to try more and more to know dance base and lesson. Now I don’t know base and lesson. I know how to dance but I cannot dance when I don’t know dance base. I cannot do without Jesus. I can only do with Jesus. So I need to pray to Jesus. I believe someday he will give me answer.


My name is Hang Thung Lia. I come from Myanmar. I have two brothers and I don’t have any sisters. I want to play guitar. I need to study a Guitar. I think one day I will become a music teacher.

These of course are heart-wrenching to read. The kids are hopeful and yet have no real reason to be. They’re poor as dirt living in substandard conditions, at the mercy of a vast bureaucracy which keeps them in limbo status for years. One of my students has been in KL for 6 years awaiting resettlement. Her plea to Jesus seems like a desperate call for someone to listen to her.



When I first stepped into this volunteer teaching gig arranged by the United Nations, I really had no idea how to teach children. To be honest, I don’t even like kids. I find them to be annoyingly loud and too random in thought. Helium voices, crumb snatchers, disease spreaders. I avoid kids whenever possible. But I needed to do something productive during my time here in Kuala Lumpur and as a native English speaker, I have a much-needed skill to share. So I took it on, bought a how-to book, took a one day workshop, and watched some YouTube videos. My American friend Cynthia who teaches at an international school here gave me some folders with handout worksheets for the kids. I attended class with her a couple times as her TA. All of this was my self-imposed boot camp to be an ESL teacher and I certified myself.

The time came for me to solo teach, so I hopped in a taxi and got lost, almost giving up but found the unmarked door at the last moment. I walked up the stinky stairs and strode into class armed with materials but empty handed in confidence and experience. Checking my notes on exactly what I would cover that day, I just stepped up to the board and gave it a try.

My teaching was decidedly bookworm-ish. Word of the day? For goddsake how boring is that? One day last year I walked in to find 2 new teachers from England had taken over the adjoining class to teach the younger kids. They had battery operated portable speakers attached to their iPhones and a guitar and they had the kids up on their chairs singing and clapping. It was hard for Miss Schoolmarm Me to conduct my dull class with all the commotion of the super-ESL teachers next door doing the Hokey-friggin-Pokey. They were putting their left feet in and their left feet out and shaking them all about. At one point I wrote the word ROWDY on the board and had the students look it up. I was unamused and secretly envious of this duo who could motivate children instantly.

I went home that day feeling like a total failure, ready to quit. Clearly I didn’t have the skills to teach like that nor the charisma to excite children to jump to their feet and sing songs in English. And I really, really hate the Hokey Pokey. What good is the Hokey Pokey going to do for them when they get resettled? Wouldn’t they be better off knowing good hygiene and past participles?

Next week I came in expecting to be further humiliated by the Up With People ESL-ers, but they weren’t there. The classroom was silent. They didn’t show up. I, however, showed up with my word of the week: COMPASSION. I had them write persuasive letters to someone they know who smokes to please stop smoking. I had them read books and identify the 5W’s. As a nod to the ESL teachers on speed, I offered a game of charades. And a fake chat show where we would interview each other.

The weeks and months went on and I began to feel more comfortable in my Schoolmarm skin. Perhaps the biggest lesson I taught was the one I taught to myself about just showing up. Being there for the kids, week after week, month after month is enough. They’re like little chicks and they imprint easily and now they’ve adopted me in all my boring, middle-aged, lacklusteredness (that could very well be the word of the day, next week).

Coming from a wealthy country to Malaysia has been one order of challenging for me — to face the grit and grime of an undeveloped nation on a daily basis. I’m so easily defeated and vanquished by it all. But to teach refugees who come to this place as the shining city where everything is possible is something else. It takes every bit of courage on my part to do it and then when it’s done I am so touched by them. They’re virtually undefeatable, these kids. I couldn’t tell them that no one is listening and they may never get resettled and if they do, they will be miniature misfits in a world of giants who will have them cleaning Walmart stores on the midnight shift somewhere in Oklahoma. But I can’t tell them that. They’ve taught me a thing or two about courage. Courage to leave your country and start over. Courage to be happy with what you have when it’s so little. Listening to these kids has given me confidence to teach them and share with them what little talent I have.

I may not be Jesus, and maybe I don’t have the ability to grant them their wish lists, but I show up and I listen. And in a world that mostly ignores and exploits them, it’s maybe not such a small contribution.

Posted by: facetothewind | August 3, 2015

A January poem for August


Poem by January Handl • Photography by David Gilmore

When the pain is acute,
I am cut adrift from the anchor
Of my tap into the stream
Of life
Life with all its entirety
All its vibrancy
All its venom and vice

If, when a pause occurs
I am awake,
I am immediately immersed
In the giant gratitude
For perception
Even the ills, and limits
Even the long-suffering idiocies
I endured while learning to be
Even the constant forgetting
Of hard-earned honors in
humility and

I have been twice-visited today
With a grace denied me the past few years-
The kind that reminds me that this
Wonder of an experience,
This thing we call life
This leap toward
Toward love
Is a precious gift
Offered in each moment
This moment.


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